Epidemiology

Homicide data for the years 1976 to 1999 indicate that, compared to whites, blacks are six times more likely to be homicide victims and eight times more likely to commit homicide. Males represent nearly 75 percent of all homicide victims and almost 90 percent of all offenders. Compared to females, males are three times more likely to be killed and eight times more likely to commit homicide. Younger individuals are also at greater risk; almost one-third of victims and nearly one-half of offenders are under the age of twenty-five (Fox and Zawitz).

Homicide among intimate partners and family members remains a major concern, despite decreases in the rates of such events. In comparison with males, females are more likely to be killed by their intimate partners (defined as current or former spouses and current or former boyfriends and girlfriends, including those of the same sex). Women in the United States are at higher risk of homicide victimization than women in any other high-income society (Hemenway, Shinoda-Tagawa, and Miller). In 1998 the deaths of almost three-quarters of all women murdered were attributable to their intimate partners (Rennison and Welchans). For the period from 1993 through 1999, intimate partners killed 32 percent of all female murder victims ages twenty to twenty-four (Rennison, 2001). Analysis of homicide data for the years 1981 through 1998 indicate that the highest rates of intimate partner homicide during these years were among black and white females in the southern and western states (Paulozzi, Saltzman, Thompson, et al.), and most female victims were killed by an unarmed partner. Additionally, homicide is a major contributor to deaths occurring during pregnancy (Dannenberg, Carter, Lawson, et al.).

Women who kill their intimate partners often do so in response to repeated batterings. These beatings may result in the development of trauma symptoms, such as anxiety and psychic numbing, as well as lowered self-esteem and the development of self-destructive coping responses to the violence. The victimization may also lead to a total loss of the woman's social self. In general, a battered woman does not attack her abuser when harm is imminent but, instead, during a hiatus in the assaults. The incidence of female-perpetrated partner homicide appears to be lower in states that have strong domestic-violence legislation and greater access to supportive services such as shelters, crisis lines, and support groups (Dutton).

Disparities also exist in the disposition of cases involving intimate partner homicide. Of the 156 wives and 256 husbands convicted in 1988 in the United States for murdering their partners, wives received prison sentences that, on average, were twenty years shorter than those received by convicted husbands, even when comparing only those husbands and wives who were not provoked prior to the homicide (Langan and Dawson).

The United States has the highest rate of childhood homicide of any industrialized nation in the world (CDC). In fact, homicide represents the leading cause of infant deaths due to injury in the United States (Overpeck, Brenner, Trumble, et al.). An estimated 37,000 children were killed in the United States between 1976 and 1994, and one-fifth of these murders were committed by a family member (Greenfield). Of all children under the age of five who were murdered from 1976 to 1999, 61 percent were killed by parents or stepparents, and an additional 29 percent were killed by other relatives or by a male acquaintance. Most of the children killed were male and most of the offenders were male (Fox and Zawitz). Children under the age of eighteen accounted for nearly 11 percent of all murder victims in the United States in 1994, and nearly half of these children were between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. Among those killed in this age group, nearly 70 percent were killed with a handgun, while almost 20 percent were killed by another child. In addition, infants born to very young mothers have an increased risk of homicide (Overpeck, Brenner, Trumble, et al.).

The number of homicides involving adult or juvenile gang violence has increased fourfold since 1976 (Fox and Zawitz), and an increasing proportion of these homicides are now associated with firearm use. In Los Angeles County, for example, firearms were used in 94.5 percent of homicides in 1994, compared to 71.4 percent in 1979. Homicides committed with semiautomatic weapons also increased substantially during this period (Hutson, Anglin, and Kyriacou).

As of2000, firearm use accounted for approximately 70 percent of all murders in the United States (Rennison, 2001). From 1973 to 1999, more than 80 percent of all workplace homicides were committed with a firearm (Duhart). The rate of homicides involving firearms has historically been higher in the southern states than in other regions (USDOJ, Homicide Trends). This regional variation has been attributed to both sociocultural factors and to the ease of access to firearms in the South.

Despite the increase in gun-related homicides, numerous state legislatures eased restrictions on the availability and use of firearms during the closing decades of the twentieth century, allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons even into churches and some government buildings. Public surveys indicate, however, that such increased gun-carrying actually reduces, rather than increases, public perceptions of safety (Hemenway, Azrael, and Miller).

The risk of homicide is also associated with the use of alcohol or illicit substances by the perpetrator and/or the victim immediately prior to the killing (Pernanen). Chronic alcohol use has been found to increase by up to tenfold an individual's risk of being a homicide victim (Rivara, Mueller, Somes, et al.). It is believed that the use of alcohol and illicit substances may adversely affect an individual's ability to process and interpret information correctly, thereby increasing the likelihood of miscommunication, which may lead to violence. Additionally, because alcohol use may impair an individual's judgment, intoxicated persons may be more likely to place themselves in situations that entail a high risk of violence. Chronic alcohol use may also indicate that an individual has an antisocial personality disorder, which is associated with increased rates of violence and victimization (Rivara, Mueller, Somes, et al.).

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